Starlink, China, and Upset Plans

Starlink, China, and Upset Plans

If you are interested in Earth observation, I’ve written up a few articles for the company Orbify. Here’s the link to the first of my articles the company has published.

When thinking about the U.S. Department of Defense and its favorite contractors, the list is potentially quite long. To name just a few well-known ones: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, Raytheon, L3Harris, United Launch Alliance, Ball Aerospace, etc. Each contractor has provided a space capability to the DoD that contributes to a comprehensive portfolio: Global Positioning, Space Domain Awareness (formerly space situational awareness, but someone needed a star), global communications, missile defense, missile warning, and all sorts of Earth observation capabilities, etc. Not to mention intercontinental nuclear missiles, space launch, a decent if antiquated ground system, and more.

Each of those contractors helps the DoD build and maintain those systems, giving the U.S. military a battlefield edge that few nations can similarly field. This is why it’s surprising that the latest lamentations from both China and Russia aren’t about any of those DoD capabilities and the contractors who make them happen, but instead about SpaceX–specifically the company’s Starlink constellation.


One of China Military Online’s authors provides the following reasons:

  1. Starlink is expanding its constellation to 42,000 satellites
  2. SpaceX has a “strong military background.”
  3. SpaceX cooperates with the military
  4. Starlink satellite busses can be mounted with nearly anything military
  5. Starlink provides broadband communications anywhere
  6. Starlink could become an independent internet

SpaceX doesn’t quite have the breadth of contract-winning capabilities that the aforementioned other companies can bring to the table. The company merely provides launch capability and an alternative broadband solution from space. Both of the company’s services and products, by design, are highly effective solutions.

Musk’s planned Starlink deployments and subsequent expansions of his low Earth orbit (LEO) broadband constellation have been publicly known for at least three years. From the initial thousands to the more grand tens of thousands SpaceX plans to deploy, the numbers were known from FCC documents when SpaceX submitted its various applications. So there are no surprises about how many satellites SpaceX (or OneWeb or Amazon) is hoping to deploy. And yet, China’s recent concerns about SpaceX’s satellite deployments are suddenly seen as a road towards the company monopolizing LEO. From China Military Online:

“Orbital position and frequency are rare strategic resources in space. At present, the geosynchronous orbit has almost been fully occupied and the scramble for Low-earth Orbit and Medium-earth Orbit positions has become more intense. The LEO is able to accommodate about 50,000 satellites, over 80% of which would be taken by Starlink if the program were to launch 42,000 satellites as it has planned. SpaceX is undertaking an enclosure movement in space to take a vantage position and monopolize strategic resources.”

It’s strange to see the lower Earth orbits characterized in one possibly inaccurate term: the LEO. There may be a language disconnect there, but the bigger question is: where did the data come from that sets the limit for how many satellites can orbit in LEO? What range of altitudes comprises LEO for this statement to hold true? What orbits within LEO are the worst? What would 50,000 satellites look like at an altitude 300 kilometers above the Earth, spread out along 180 planes? None of these are addressed in that article.

Maybe a little terrestrial experience can help visualize the challenge? I live not too far away from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which crosses the mouth of Tampa Bay. It’s about 7 kilometers long (and is lovely to drive across on sunny days). The bridge averages about 59,000 cars driving across its spans each day. And while traffic can get quite terrible in the bay area on any given day, the cars crossing that bridge are almost not noticeable when looked at from an aircraft 30,000 feet in the sky. But, of course, I understand that more variables, such as velocity, make this a more demanding topic for people to contemplate. That’s my point–just stating 50,000 satellites is the limit for LEO doesn’t cut the mustard, either.

The lack of information gives some reason to be suspicious about how that 50,000 limits of “the LEO” is being bandied about and gives rise to the word “nonsense” when discussing SpaceX monopolizing LEO.

Hello, Kettle; this is the Pot

Continuing with the three military-focused bullets (2-4), the answers are: no, not really; well, of course; and sure. All of those concerns could be broadly applied to any aforementioned U.S. companies.

For my “no” answer, SpaceX had to sue the United States Air Force to get that service to grudgingly allow the Falcon 9 to be used for launching its satellites. Also, the author conveniently tucks away the fact of NASA’s role in helping the Falcon 9 come to fruition, from tech to financing.

The article buttresses its assertion of SpaceX’s strong military background because some of its launches tend to occur from sites on military bases. This is nothing new but is necessary, and not just for SpaceX. Historically and even now, Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral are used for orbital space launches. There are no other sites available to support sizeable orbital rocket launches–yet (maybe Boca Chica one day). Other nations use military sites, former and current, to do the same. China’s rocket launches, for example, are conducted from historically military-run areas, such as Jiuquan, Taiyuan, and Xichang. Even Wenchang on Hainan may have some “military stink” attached to launch operations there.

And, of course, SpaceX is pursuing cooperation with the U.S. military for its launches and its Starlink service–that’s where the easy money is and is the reason for my “of course” answer. It’s also the reason for my “sure” answer about SpaceX possibly putting on different payloads on its Starlink bus instead of its broadband communications package. SpaceX is building satellites other than Starlink, as it received a Space Development Agency award to develop Earth observation satellites for SDA’s Space Tracking Layer. Time will tell whether the company will be successful in its endeavor to build those military satellites and whether it can build them as quickly as it does its Starlink satellites.

But bullets five and six probably telegraph a few of the real reasons for China’s concern. Starlink has shown that its users can still communicate to the outside world even in a hostile environment and appears to have ways to mitigate most current jamming methods (although that is just one facet to worry about). The fears about Starlink being fully independent with headquarters in a nation that (at least sometimes) values free speech are probably much closer to the truth.

Why Now?

That question may be the most straightforward to answer, just based on the timing and examples provided in the article itself: Ukraine.

While China Military Online mentions a few examples of how Starlink is used to aid the Ukrainians, Techstory provides a few more details:

“The Ukrainian aerial reconnaissance unit Aerorozvidka has been found using Starlink to monitor and coordinate UAVs enabling soldiers to fire anti-tank weapons with targeted precision. Only the system’s high data rates can provide the stable communication required.”

“We use Starlink equipment and connect the drone team with our artillery team,” an officer with the Ukrainian aerial reconnaissance unit, Aerorozvidka told. “If we use a drone with thermal vision at night, the drone must connect through Starlink to the artillery guy and create target acquisition,” the officer said.”

That is an example of the Ukrainian military leveraging Starlink to push back against a more significant military force using what sounds like a hack. Imagine what a well-financed, reliably trained military could do with something like Starlink. That’s probably what China’s and Russia’s leaders did.

But Ukraine and its implications for the U.S. military are just the most immediate reason China is publicly worrying about Starlink. The other reason may be how quickly Starlink was deployed and became operational. And this is why Starlink, in particular, is the target of China’s worry. As noted earlier, other much better-financed contractors provide plenty of capability to the U.S. military already. But China’s leadership didn’t trot out ULA, Boeing, or Lockheed as companies to worry about.

Counting on Gradatim Ferociter

China’s military likely based its strategy on the lackadaisical pacing of the military space programs run by those companies and the DoD. They take decades to become operational while constantly increasing in cost. Even now, we see that system at work as the DoD refuses to wean itself from legacy systems and methods to acquire them. It is so slow that China didn’t worry about Boeing and the others. The country’s leadership and military understood that if the U.S. military decided to implement a LEO broadband constellation, it would either be killed in the cradle (because it cost too much) or take about fifty years for full deployment of the constellation.

On the other hand, SpaceX deployed Starlink’s first 60 satellites in 2019. SpaceX has nearly 2,200 satellites in orbit as of this writing (less than three years later) with the Ukrainians seemingly using the partially deployed constellation to some effect already. When the Starlink constellation is fully deployed, will more satellites provide more capability to an already formidable military? In less than a decade?

The constellation’s battlefield implications must be causing certain Chinese and Russian generals some sleepless nights. And they must logically be thinking that if SpaceX can deliver that capability in less than a decade, why would the U.S. military decide to fall back to the status quo? Embracing SpaceX’s pacing would throw U.S. adversary strategies into the wastebasket, as they can no longer count on time being on their side. The seeming public hand-wringing about SpaceX and Starlink (instead of Viasat) in China Military Online seems to point to that. That alone should be a reason for the U.S. DoD to change its acquisition practices.

Why would the DoD go back to financing space programs that take decades to manage when one company seems to be pointing to a better way? If only our representatives asked American generals and admirals that question…

Ultimately, even though it’s all just conjecture, the reasons why China and Russia are fretting about SpaceX in public may have everything to do with what the company currently offers and its agility in response. The ability to significantly accelerate capabilities and services from inception to operations in unheard-of scales and timeframes has become the company’s hallmark. Those leaders don’t fret about Viasat, Boeing, Lockheed, Blue Origin, and ULA–they have the pulse of how those companies operate, which mirrors the DoD. That knowledge allowed for spying and adequate response times.

On the other hand, SpaceX's pacing worries those traditional U.S. rivals enough to feel like their only recourse is to vent their frustrations to the world publicly. So it would be suitable for our leadership and military to examine what it is that’s knocking them off balance–and do it some more instead of doubling down on the predictable status quo.